It was a crisp, wintry day. A thin coating of snow covered the streets. It was the end of the week, just nine days from Christmas and the city was filled with the bright spirit of the holiday. But that Friday, December 16, 1960, would be remembered as one of the darkest days in the city’s history.
It was the day death rained from the sky when two passenger planes collided over the eastern edge of Staten Island, one a propeller-powered TWA Super Constellation with 44 aboard, the other a United DC 8 jet carrying 84 people.
The TWA plane crashed into a field on Staten Island, while the jetliner plummeted into the intersection of Sterling Place and 7th Avenue in Park Slope. It turned the street into raging inferno. Six people on the ground were killed instantly. It was the worst civil aviation disaster to date in aviation history.
Hundreds of miles to the west, I was a fledgling reporter at a radio station in Columbus, Ohio. I broke into regular programming with bulletins about the disaster in my hometown, where I was scheduled to visit that weekend.
As details of the mid-air collision surfaced, I quickly realized that I had an emotional attachment to the story. Had it not been for a colleague’s drinking problem, I would have been on TWA Flight 266, a non-stop flight from Columbus to New York.
I was looking forward to spending a long weekend with my family, but my news director refused to let me leave on that Friday because he assigned me to cover the overnight shift for a colleague he suspended after a third incident of intoxication. “Leave on Saturday,” he said “and take an extra day Monday.” I was ticketed on TWA Flight 266 24 hours after the flight doomed plunged into Brooklyn.
I could feel the tension overtake my body as we flew to New York. Despite the crash, the flight number had not been changed. Newspapers gripped in the hands of passengers bore bold headlines of the tragedy. I scribbled notes during the flight, notes that are yellowed and tattered from age. But the memories of that day remain quite vivid.
After picking me up at the airport, I had my parents drive me to the scene in Brooklyn. I flashed my Ohio press pass and police gave me complete access, just like the big guys from the networks.
The scene was surreal. Twisted and crumbled chunks of an airliner filled the street. Parts of a landing gear lay mangled beside a small tree, an overturned car was crushed by wreckage, as though it had been stepped upon by a giant.
I walked across the water soaked and burned carpet of the once gleaming jetliner. Seats were torn from their mountings. A gaping split was quite visible at the Pillar of Fire Church that was hit by the plane before it hit the ground. Sadness permeated the air. But out of the tragedy, there was one glimmer of hope, a miracle. 11-year-old Stephen Baltz, flying home alone to see his grandmother for Christmas, somehow survived.
A flight attendant grabbed the boy and held him in her lap as the plane hit the ground. He was thrown from the plane and landed in a snowbank, badly burned, but still alive. As I was standing amid the wreckage, absorbing the magnitude of the tragedy, a friend I had gone to college with, and was now working for CBS news, shouted out to me, “The boy has died.”
I paused, and felt tears fill my eyes, as I quickly dashed to find a pay phone to file my story for WCOL Newswatch back in Columbus.
52 years later I still reflect on that day—the devastation, the anguished faces of those who lost loved ones. And I will never forget the contrasting cheers of joy of my colleagues who toasted me at our Christmas party that fateful day, delighted that my weekend plans had been changed because a fellow worker got drunk and I had to work his shift.
Each anniversary serves as a reminder for me of both the fragility and preciousness of life. And missing Flight 266 more than five decades ago has had another impact on me. As silly as it may sound, I make every effort not to fly on the 16 of December each year.